One of the other big words in this book for me is the word ‘should.’ In fact, you title a whole section ‘Should.’ I think you say at some point that the word opens up the world of what ought to be rather than what is. And it hangs over all the characters. Does that word mean that we are avoiding dealing with the world the way it is by focusing on all the ‘should’ in our lives or are we just doomed to live in this gap between what should be and what is? Why is ‘should’ such a heavy word in this book?
It’s maybe both of those things. I want to go back to the example of my father-in-law. I don’t know that Mike existed in a world of ‘should’ any more. We’d have to have hard conversations with him sometimes like, “You really should be cleaning your house. You really should be taking care of yourself.” He would listen and then he’d just go about his life the way he wanted to.
So that can be unhealthy but he didn’t live under this cloud of expectation, that most of us do, of this should happen and then all of these other things will happen. There’s great freedom in that. I don’t know, maybe that’s a better way to find the ‘should’ if we just do what is. We just work right now on what is in front of us and then wherever we should be will hopefully come because we were here and present.
We can’t completely ignore the future, of course. I can tell myself that as many times as I want—be present and don’t fixate on what should be—and of course I can’t stick to it. So maybe it’s both of the things that you said. Fixating on the ‘should’ keeps us from focusing on the present, on the ‘is,’ and that deserves more of our focus. But I don’t know if we’ll ever escape that kind of no man’s land between the two.
That’s good. Definitely feels like a struggle for me too. Just to be in the moment.
Well, can we talk about the sex in this book? It’s obviously a thread running through it and it’s furtive and it’s hot and it takes place in closets and classrooms and bathrooms and Ed has a compulsion toward it and yet there’s no post-coital glow in any of those scenes. There is always somebody walking away or a sense of not being able to meet. Is sex in the book one more behavior that has a deeper connection that the characters are not able to find?
I think yes, sadly. It is this example of behavior as passionate and exciting. I mean I think that you could read some of the sex scenes as, yeah, a sexy sex scene, but there is always loss involved. There’s always some kind of a disconnect.
Ed’s sex is a primal act that sometimes he can’t get with Laura so he can go and have that satisfied with Delilah. So it is a purely physical thing in that regard. But then in the classroom Laura says to Ed, “It takes [having sex] in the classroom to realize I’m pregnant. Really?” Then there’s [the moment when she says that] a hand on the chest is not intimacy. Like it’s not enough; you still don’t see me.
There’s that juxtaposition to really romantic sex. I think we, in American culture, are so torn on how we talk about sex or handle it. We’re still really steeped in puritan roots in some way and are very prudish when we refer to sex. [So we think of it as] this kind of animalistic drive that we want to resist and [yet] we want to think it’s this kind of transcendent moment where these two beings become one and fully connect. I think that there’s this great spectrum in between ‘sex equals love’ on one end and ‘sex is just a physical act’ on the other.
Many of my characters, Laura especially, want sex and love to coexist. She wants to be feeling fully connected with her partner when she’s having sex and she doesn’t. Ed is much more on the other end of ‘sex is this great physical act’ and the most intimate sex he has in this book is with Laura in the bathroom when she’s pregnant with another man’s child. In that moment, even though he can’t really, even then, change his behavior, he can see all of his missed opportunities to connect in a deeper way.
So, sex is ultimately, even if it’s really sexy in the book, is kind of sad. Even though the physical coupling is happening, it’s not a shared experience internally. So yet again, we’re in that conflict between what’s happening internally and what’s happening externally. If behavior is the only thing that matters, then the only thing that matters is that these people are having sex together. But we know that the two people are in such different headspaces and that the sex is meaning different things to them.
Right, and in some ways the most intimate scenes are at the end when she is kind of just attending to his bodily needs, and the things that are happening are messy. Of course, it’s all messy. But that last scene in the restaurant where she can see something in him that’s precious even though everything about him is breaking down.
Yeah. I would say that that is definitely one of the most intimate scenes between them.
I’m still just in shock that it’s actually done and out in the world. I feel like you’ve captured so much really eloquently in your review.
It is a story of loss. And about different iterations of loss, and different kinds of ends. I think it also, (which I hope all of my work does), challenges people to step away from polarities and thinking only in black or white, good or bad. But to look at a lot of grey. Ed had some loathsome moments, but he also had some really great moments. So the idea of how we can be multiple selves—we can be multiple people in the single people we are. Ed can be an incredibly devoted superintendent and advocate for the developmentally disabled, and even a really caring father, and a really blind and shitty husband. And all of those things are true.
I think it hurts our brains sometimes to have to keep those conflicting truths in the same place. But I think just where we are as a country, as a society—things aren’t black and white. We need to be able to have a better understanding or compassion for, or acceptance of, the nuances of each other. I hope that comes through in the book.
I think just where we are as a country, as a society—things aren’t black and white. We need to be able to have a better understanding or compassion for, or acceptance of, the nuances of each other.
I think it definitely does. It’s such a good combination of being clear-eyed and poignant at the same time, and those don’t often go together.
Oh, thank you.
In your previous book that same quality really kept it from falling into the danger of nostalgia about the past. That helped that book to be as rich as it was, too.
You’ve mentioned the state of the country, I’m just thinking back to the essay that you wrote about your flight from Austin to Montana in the wake of the election. Are you still feeling like we’ll eventually rally around a new course?
Oh, I sure hope so, I sure hope so. I’m a little terrified for 2020 to be honest. But I’m hopeful. I think it’s easy to become discouraged, and I certainly do at times, but I think I have to just be hopeful and believe that we’ll see ourselves out of this current state that we’re in.
We haven’t talked much about Montana, which is a big part of the book, too. Living back in Montana now do you see it as having the kind of diversity that I sometimes see in rural areas? Of course, Montana shades a little blue anyway, but…
A little. There’s a little blue here but it is a conservative state for the most part. I feel like I always live in these red states but then in a blue bubble. Like in Helena, the capital, there’s like this big progressive Democratic liberal contingent. So, you feel like, “I’m surrounded by people who feel politically the same as I do,” and then you realize, “Oh wait, no, this is a little island.”
But yes, it’s an interesting landscape. Maybe it’s because, (and now I’m going to wax eloquent about the beauty of Montana), but we have so much open space here and public lands, and those are used by so many different kinds of people. They are used by hikers and mountain bikers and campers and backpackers and hunters and all-terrain vehicle riders and dirt bikers.
I’m a camper, and I camp in a tent and leave no trace. And then I sit down in a room with someone who is “I ride my dirt bike on these trails,” and we have very, very little in common, except that we want to preserve these natural areas where we go and we use for very different reasons. Of course I’m annoyed by the dirt bikes that are running around in the mountains and which I can hear. But those are some of those moments where, if we could just have conversations and find the things that we have in common and say, “Oh, you go out on your dirt bike because you find it beautiful and exhilarating and that’s why I go out and I camp.”
I’m sure this happens in other ways and other places, but that brings a lot of people to the same table. To fight for the same things, even though they’re coming from different backgrounds. That is something I love about the people in this state. If we can have that happen more often, where we get different people at the same table and with the same goal.
Evangelism around the camp fire, I love it. That’s great.